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Consumer Alert:





Nina Banister
(850) 413-2842    
Learn as much as possible about seller before making a bid.
While shopping online is fun, you better be careful when bidding on an item in a virtual auction.  According to the National Consumers League, 87 percent of the Internet frauds involve online auctions.
An important step in protecting yourself from fraud is to learn as much as you can about the person or business selling the object.  For example, eBay has a feedback section where bidders post comments about transactions with sellers.  Reading feedback gives you an idea about how they treat customers.
You will find comments like "excellent transaction," "product exactly as described in listing," "fast shipper" or "will do business with seller again."  While there are no steadfast rules, avoid doing business with sellers who have less than 50 or more positive ratings.  Unfortunately, also bear in mind that some sellers have f riends and associates post phony testimonials.
Recognizing phony testimonials is difficult.  Safeguard the transaction as much as possible by verifying the seller's identity before placing a bid.  Get a phone number so you can contact the seller in a fashion other than e-mail.
The eBay Web site also suggests that you ask the seller questions before placing a bid by using the "Ask seller a question" link on the item page.  When you ask a question the seller receives an e-mail with your questions along with your e-mail address.
You should also understand the seller's refund and return policies before bidding and have a good notion about the value of the product.  Carefully read the seller's item description and scrutinize posted photographs.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggest you also read the fine print and look for words like "refurbished," "replaced," "reproduction" or "restored."
Occasionally a crook may "highjack" a photo of an object from another seller and attempt to list it as his own.  Act cautiously when a deal appears to be "too good to be true."
One way to protect yourself from loss is by doing business with people or companies that accept credit cards.  Credit cards afford you the greatest amount of safety in an online transaction.  While many sellers only accept checks or money orders, it is not to your advantage to do business that way.  If a check or money is required, particularly for big ticket items worth hundreds of dollars or more, consider using an escrow service.
Escrow services are licensed and regulated companies that collect, hold and send your funds to a seller according to instructions agreed on by you and the seller.  They charge a small fee for these services, typically around 5 percent of the purchase price.  After you received and approve the item from the seller, the escrow service forwards the payment to the seller.
You can also insist that you will pay for the item only upon acceptance on delivery.  The bottom line is that you should insist on a method of payment that you feel comfortable with.
With expensive items you should not assume without confirmation that claims about an item's condition or value are true, or that photographs are accurate.  Ebay suggest you consider using an authentication service to verify the veracity of the product. 
Additionally, you should avoid unsolicited offers and never bid on listings where the seller only accepts cash or wire transfers.  These are red flags of fraud.
Other important information includes the seller's return policy, shipping and handling costs and details about warranties.  Request that your item be shipped insured and/or in a traceable manner.
Finally, as a buyer you also have obligations.  You should never bid on an item you don't plan to buy.  If you are the highest bidder the seller will expect you to follow through on your offer and comply with the auction guidelines.
If you have problems during your transaction, try to work it out directly with the seller or with the auction Web site.  If that doesn't work, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by calling toll-free (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357) or visiting the FTC's Web site at www.ftc.gov.  You should also contact the Office of the Florida Attorney General at http://myfloridalegal.com